Archive for May, 2010

The girl in the picture

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Just recently I linked to a gallery that included Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo. Today, I found a BBC radio feature on the girl in that picture, Kim Phuc, who now lives in Toronto.

It’s old news, but worth a listen. In particular, Kim Phuc’s experience of the trials associated with life as “the girl in the picture” cast light on the recent controversy surrounding Marco Vernaschi’s photo of a mutilated Ugandan boy.

People forget that a TV crew also recorded the scene as Kim Phuc fled that napalm attack; we remember the still photograph. That’s the peculiar power of photography. It creates icons, whiloe moving images fade from memory. And its ability to make icons out of people who may not wish to be icons is one of its problems.

How do you deal with the potential fallout of your photographs? Do you stop taking them?

Truths we hold to be self-evident

May 20, 2010 1 comment

Mark Sampson has an excellent post on arts funding, which in a single sentence might be summarized as “Stop making silly economic arguments for arts funding, and start arguing that arts funding is simply a feature of the Canada you want to live in.”

In all the time I wrote for outdoor magazines, I felt the same about economic arguments made in favour of protecting natural resources. One should not have to argue that clean water is a benefit because of tourism dollars related to clean water; it should be sufficient to observe that clean water is clean fucking water.

And that argument carries an inherent risk: if the tourism becomes less lucrative than, say, the intensive pig farming whose runoff turns your formerly clean water into E. coli soup, then one is up E. coli creek sans paddle, rhetorically speaking.

A similar fate awaits those who hope to argue in favour of funding poetry in place of, say, applied research on the affinity of teenaged girls for sparkly vampires. If’n we’re gonna fund lit-ra-chur, says the administrator, should we not pursue the best bang for our buck?

Some values are best not measured in dollars.

Categories: canlit

Self, please note

May 17, 2010 2 comments

At the Afterword, Steven Heighton provides a series of notes to his younger self on the craft of writing (following up on another list of notes-to-self at his website), which are alternately trenchant and baffling.

The trenchant:

9   Never generalize.  The world beyond the mind consists of nothing but exceptions.

10   Complicate it, complicate it.  Truth is in the nuances.

11   Then simplify in the later drafts to drive the complexity underground, like a textual subconscious.

12   Because you want your work to have a teeming subconscious.  In your early drafts, write everything that occurs to you, then cut ferociously.  The material you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.

13   Or think of those editorial gaps as synapses that the good reader bridges with sparks of insight, helping to turn a now-collaborative work into a brightly firing circuit of experience and understanding.

I’m of the firm belief that the art of editing lies in the “Delete” key, though (of course) not everyone writes the same way. Jim Harrison, for example, thinks out his novellas in advance, and then simply writes them down, and the results speak for themselves—although his critics might well point out that his longer work tends to ramble.

Harrison’s friend, Thomas McGuane, on the other hand, writes 600 pages to get 200, which has prompted Harrison to complain that he excises “too much great material.” Be that as it may, the result is as Heighton describes: work that brims with a sense of subconscious. There is always a sense of depth beyond the page.

Heighton has much other good advice. But some is also baffling:

22   Don’t confuse story and plot.  Story is narrative impelled by character.  Thus it emerges from inside the material of your fiction.  Plot is a dramatic contrivance deployed to entertain or to illustrate a theme.  Plot is imposed on the material from the outside, and everything else in the work—character, detail, language, etc.—is subordinated to it.

It would be enormously helpful, I think, if everyone meant the same thing when they spoke of “story” and “plot.” Heighton is making up his own definition of plot, which is just plain wrong: plot is the cause-and-effect sequence of events underlying the story, and as such, all character-driven stories necessarily have plots, which emerge from their characters. In other words, Heighton is choosing to call plot “story.” It’s apparent from his complaints—that plot exists to “entertain or to illustrate a theme”—that he sees plot as the territory of plot-driven genre fiction and didactic dramas, and is uncomfortable picking it up off the floor. To which I say, you have to dissect the frog, even if it’s icky.

This is one of the attractions of screenwriting, for me: it forces you to dissect the frog.

Before moving on, let me pause to deride Heighton’s remark that plot is a “narrative contrivance.” Stories are narrative contrivances, Heighton: nothing in a story is not contrived by its author.

And finally:

14   There’s nothing less enjoyable than writing well, because it means excising the superfluous, self-indulgent matter that was the most pleasing to write.

This is the most popular writing advice in the world: take the parts you think are good, and throw them away.

Let me say now that this is also potentially the dumbest writing advice in the world. I wish people would stop giving it.

Let us suppose, for the sake of illustration, that you take the parts you think are good, and throw them away. You will now be left with the parts that you think are pretty humdrum.

If you are a self-indulgent writer who doesn’t self-edit effectively, you will have thrown away the self-indulgent bits where you tried to be flashy and mostly fell on your face, and you’ll be left with writing that works.

But if you’re an effective self-editor, you’ll have thrown out the good parts and you’ll be left with the dross.

Instead of continually advising writers to throw away their best writing, why don’t we instead advise them to learn to recognize their best writing?

Categories: writing

The Big Picture: Vietnam

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog is one I keep an eye on. Last week, to recognize the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam War, they put up a gallery that’s well worth a look.

Vietnam has a special significance in war photography, not simply because of it’s status as a Baby Boom touchstone, but because it marked a shift in how photographers covered war, the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

The photography of WWII was primarily cheerleading an Allied victory in what might be called “the last good war.” In Korea, riding the wave of righteousness that followed, and of anti-Communist sentiment, photographers were happy to show that war is hell, without questioning its necessity, our moral authority to conduct it, or the actions of our own troops. David Douglas Duncan, who took pains to show American soldiers in a positive light, is the avatar of Korean War photography.

All that changed in Vietnam. Growing anti-war sentiment was reflected in, and amplified by, anti-war photography. In part, this may be the influence of photographers from non-combatant nations; it can’t be a coincidence that two of the leading anti-war photographers of the Vietnam era, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, were British. And for the first time, war photography ceased to be the preserve of travelling correspondents from Western countries. Vietnamese photographers made a significant contribution.

This gallery is missing most of the usual suspects: we get nothing from McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, or the brilliant Larry Burrows. There are a lot of uncredited AP photos and DoD photos. But it also highlights the significant work of two Vietnamese photographers, Nick Ut and Henri Huet.

Henri Huet, the son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, is little remembered these days, probably because his career ended in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But his photography stands out in this gallery—and these photos are not even his best-known work (although one appeared as a Tim O’Brien cover).

And Nick Ut, of course, is known for his Pulitzer-winning photo of “napalm girl” Kim Phuc, but this gallery gives us just enough to show that he was no one-trick pony.

Check out the gallery.

Thanks for nothin’

May 11, 2010 1 comment

You know, I think we’d all benefit if fewer people were convinced they had a book in them, and more importantly, that said book needed to get out. Heck, my puppy has a book in her—my copy of The Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien, in fact—and that book is bound to come out sooner or later. But trust me, you won’t want to read it when it does.

The firm belief that we all have a book in us is responsible for a similar product. So you’d expect, with that attitude, that I’d applaud Geoff Pevere’s wake-up call to would be authors in The Toronto Star. But I won’t, for two reasons.

First, articles of this sort achieve nothing good. Would-be writers of sensitive disposition, people who actually can write, read this sort of thing, look at what they’ve written, and burn their manuscripts in frustration. And these are the writers most likely to succeed. Those with an ironclad and unjustified faith in their own brilliance, on the other hand, carry on without heed.

So what’s the point?

Second, the rather bleak picture that Pevere paints is, thanks to it’s large-house, agent-driven perspective, incomplete.


“Critical response to a book could once make a big difference to a book,” he says. “Now it’s great to get terrific reviews —where it’s possible to still get a review, and that’s harder and harder all the time — but that’s not what a retailer or a publisher looks at first. It’s the sales you racked … it’s sometimes easier to get something that is fresh and new — a first novel by someone that no one has heard of—published than it is to get the third or fourth novel published by someone who has written in the past but whose book sales haven’t been record-setting.”

But Doug Pepper says:

“In some cases, agents are very important. We rely on them, because that’s all they do.” says Pepper. “They go out there and find stuff, and they cut a lot of the dross out. There’s agents I know, they have fabulous taste and they’ve backed it up with success. When they tell me to read a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to agree with them, but I’ll read it. It will mean a lot to me that that agent says that.”

Before the fact, agents are held to be superb arbiters of merit, and increasingly take on the role of front-line editors, whipping manuscripts into commercial shape—often at the author’s risk, with no guarantee of representation.

After the fact, shit slides off their Teflon suits and sticks to the author; instead of holding him responsible for the one thing he really controls—the quality of his own work—we’re gonna hold him responsible for all the decisions made through the entire production chain, from agent to bookseller, and cut that bastard loose.

This is a case of trying to have your Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien and eat it too, something that my puppy has demonstrated to be impossible.

Don’t quit yer day job revisited

May 7, 2010 Leave a comment

In the midst of some promotional bullshit at Galleycat—puppy fatherhood has put paid to my usual tendency to beat around the bush, likewise my patience—I find a nugget of wisdom (notwithstanding the spurious, nonsensical reference to “this economy”) from agent Julie Barer:

I know it’s somewhat of an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that you can support yourself solely as a writer in this economy. Most of the writers I know teach, or have other day jobs to support themselves, so the best way to avoid eating ramen noodles is to not rely completely on your book advance to pay your bills.

Unfortunately, the nugget of wisdom is followed immediately by this nugget of foolishness:

In the end, the better you make the book, the better the chances that you’ll get a healthy advance, and the harder you work with your publisher to promote the book by publishing stories or nonfiction essays to raise your profile, by blogging and keeping your website active, by thinking outside of the box in terms of marketing and publicity, the better your book will do. But at the end of the day it’s the quality of the work that matters the most.


If you’re a good writer you’ll get a good advance … but you’ll have to jump naked through flaming hoops on a motorcycle to sell copies, because nobody else is gonna do it for you. It would help if you could be Cory Doctorow. Can you do that? Well, better make it good, then. And if it doesn’t sell, well, it must not have been good … I guess you really didn’t deserve that advance!

Am I alone in feeling that a circular argument prevails in American publishing these days? If your book is good, it will sell. If it didn’t sell, it must not have been good. Sorry, but we can’t do your next one, because the sales numbers don’t lie: you don’t write good books.

Yes, the needle on the Grumpy-Meter is jammed against the post. Ya wanna make something of it?

Categories: publishing, writing

Return of the conquering hero

May 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Maisonneuve has a great piece on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, now online, which makes a handy counterpoint to the Globe & Mail‘s recent story on Cockrell House, a shelter for traumatized veterans who find themselves unable to cope.

The Globe story stumbles right at the get-go:

The Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan is set to wind down next year and as battle-scarred soldiers come home, some will find that home in the streets.

Except that, because Canadian soldiers rotate in and out of Afghanistan on a regular basis, there will be no sudden return of “battle-scarred” soldiers; they’ve been coming and going for years. The predicted increase in the number of homeless veterans would occur regardless of whether Canada pulled out. It takes time to break down, lose your family, lose your career, and lose your house. The peak effects of any deployment, be it to Bosnia, Rwanda, or Afghanistan, arrive years after the fact.

But the Globe recycles that same old cliche: thousands of troops arrive home from the wars, emotionally scarred and unable to function, then fall through the cracks and take off into the bush to find peace. Never does the article point out that these casualties are a very small percentage of the whole. Instead, it fuels the common stereotype of the returning soldier: everyone is a casualty, unable to cope, half off his rocker.

It’s true that no one can return from such experiences unchanged. And returning soldiers all tend to report the same reactions: anger, frustration, alienation; a sense that no one understands, or indeed can understand, what they’ve been through. But the fact is that 70 – 80 percent of those soldiers never exhibit PTSD, and that the severity of PTSD symptoms in the rest is variable. Neither is every ex-soldier who ends up on the streets a PTSD case.

Why do only one in five develop PTSD? Nobody really knows. And here, despite all efforts to eliminate the stigma of cowardice or failure attached to soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, etc., we still continually fail. Witness Joel Elliott’s unfortunate phrase in Maisonneuve:

A devoted soldier, Dallaire became a symbol around the world of what can happen when you bear witness to events you don’t have the psychological capacity to absorb.

Rather than a lack of courage, we now look to limited “psychological capacity” to explain why one soldier is debilitated by his memories, while the next is not. The fault isn’t Elliott’s; everyone stumbles here. The language we choose always ends up implying that something is lacking. Just as the military, in Elliott’s piece, proves culturally unable to accept PTSD, we’re unable to attempt an explanation without tripping over the assumptions that lie under our words.

Categories: PTSD, war

Notes during a break in the carpet cleaning

May 5, 2010 Leave a comment

If posting around here has been light this past week, which it has, it’s because a small dog has more or less kidnapped me. For the past ten days, Sadie has been learning exciting life lessons, including “the carpet is not a toilet” and “small children are not chew toys.” Consequently, I have done neither reading nor writing. I had forgotten how much work this is.

And we’re just getting started. On their way chez moi are Gun-Dog Training: Spaniels and Retrievers by Kenneth C. Roebuck, and Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field by Anthony Z. Roettger. That one title hyphenates “gun dog” while the other does not is disturbing, because in dog handling, consistency is key. Keep this up, and Sadie will never learn to write worth a damn—but she will make a good bird dog.

What the hell am I thinking?

One of my early childhood memories is of Doctor Who, sometime in the mid-1970s, in black and white. The Daleks have invaded Earth and taken over London, and the Doctor is in a wooded area, talking to a member of the resistance. He wants to know how to get into London. “Are you crazy?” says the resistance fighter. “Nobody wants to get into London.”

Similarly, nobody gets into hunting these days; the accepted wisdom seems to be that hunting is an ugly throwback involving guns (which are of course bad) and appealing primarily to rednecks. Which, I mean, yeah … I dunno. Do we really need to have this discussion? I mean, is there any point? Really?

No, I didn’t think so.

It strikes me as ironic that the self-same progressive mindset that promotes eating locally, growing one’s own food and boycotting the factory farm is also likely to view hunting as cruel, archaic and “ugly.” Cities are nice, but I think we should spend less time in them.

Dogs lead simple lives, and there’s something to be learned from that.

Categories: dogs, hunting